Analysis & Opinions - Foreign Policy

Here's How Scared of China You Should Be

| Aug. 07, 2023

It all depends on the answers to these five questions.

A critical issue in current debates on U.S. grand strategy is the priority the country should place on competing with China. How many resources (money, people, time, attention, etc.) should the United States devote to this problem? Is China the greatest geopolitical challenge the United States has ever faced, or a colossus with feet of clay? Should countering China take precedence over all other problems (Ukraine, climate change, migration, Iran, etc.), or is it just one issue among many and not necessarily the most important?

For some observers—such as Elbridge Colby—countering China is the highest priority, and U.S. leaders must not allow themselves to be distracted by Ukraine or any other foreign-policy issues. My occasional co-author John Mearsheimer and my Harvard colleague Graham Allison seem equally concerned about the China challenge, and especially by what they see as a rising risk of war. A recent Council on Foreign Relations task force argued that military trends in Asia were shifting in China's favor and called for redoubled efforts to reinforce deterrence, especially in the Taiwan Strait. Hal Brands and Michael Beckley think China's power is nearing its peak and there's little Beijing can do to arrest its eventual decline, but they see this potential window of opportunity as a cause for alarm rather than reassurance. By contrast, my Quincy Institute colleague Michael Swaine and Cornell University scholar Jessica Chen Weiss think we are exaggerating the danger China poses and worry that the two states will fall into a self-fulfilling spiral of suspicion that will leave both worse off no matter who ends up on top.

These varied assessments are but a small sample of the opinions you can find about China's future trajectory these days. I don't know who's right—and neither do you—and I freely admit that some of these observers know a lot more about China than I do. I have my hunches, of course, but I'm mostly frustrated that the community of serious China watchers hasn't achieved more of a consensus. As a public service, therefore (and maybe to inspire them a little), here are my top five big questions about China. The answers to these questions would tell you a lot about how worried you should be.

No. 1: Is China's economic future bright, dark, or somewhere in between?

Power in international politics ultimately rests upon economics. You can talk all you want about "soft power," the genius of individual leaders, the importance of "national character," the role of chance, and much more, but the bottom line is that a country's ability to defend itself and shape its broader environment ultimately depends on its economic strength. You need a large population to be a great power, but you also need substantial wealth and a diverse and sophisticated economy. Hard economic power is what enables a state to build lots of sophisticated weapons and train a first-class military, provide goods and services that others want to buy and that can enrich its own citizens' lives, and generate surpluses that can be used to build influence around the world. Being recognized by others as competent and economically successful is also a good way to earn their respect, get them to listen to your advice, and enhance the appeal of one's political model....

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Walt, Stephen M.“Here's How Scared of China You Should Be.” Foreign Policy, August 7, 2023.

The Author

Stephen Walt